Interviewing as an International Student

Interviews can be nerve-wracking for anyone, but as an international student there is the extra challenge of trying to determine how U.S. cultural norms will manifest in a job interview situation.

The good news is, if you’re an international student who has been in the U.S. for a little while you’ve  probably already encountered most of these cultural differences, just within a different context.

American cultural values

While values and culture vary among different regions, groups, and individuals in the U.S., there are some commonly held cultural norms in American society. In general, U.S. culture values:

  • Honesty
  • Directness and efficiency
  • The idea that every one is equal
  • Confidence, assertiveness and competition
  • Individualism
  • Punctuality
  • Polite friendliness

Some of these are common in other cultures, too. Chances are, however, that there will be some differences between your home country and interviews in the States.

What it means for the interview process

Each of the values listed above impacts the interview process in different ways:

  • Honesty: Employers are interested in what you have to say, not what you think they want you to say. There often isn’t a “right” answer you should give in an interview. An employer wants to know what you think in order to  make an accurate determination of your fit for the position and company.
  • Directness and efficiency: Get to the point. Be concise when answering a question and be careful not to ramble.
  • Equality: While Americans still work in hierarchical organizations most of the time and respect superiors, there isn’t as much value placed on respecting seniors and elders as there is in some other cultures, especially when those higher-level people are acting inappropriately or unethically. Less experienced staff are often expected to voice opinions and challenge others’ ideas and behaviors for the benefit of the company.
  • Confidence, assertiveness and competition: Present yourself and your ideas as though you are the authority on your skills and attributes – because you are. You have to be your own advocate. Being too humble or modest can be perceived as a weakness. (But be careful not to come across as arrogant). Use a firm handshake and make plenty of eye contact. Avoiding eye contact may make the interviewer wonder if you are being dishonest.
  • Individualism: When discussing a team effort or group project, focus on your actions, not the group’s collective behaviors.
  • Punctuality: Being on time means being at the interview 10  minutes before it is supposed to begin.
  • Polite friendliness: Be likable, but not overly intimate or personal. How many times have you witnessed an American ask someone “how are you?” only to walk away before that person even has the chance to respond? This is because we  like the idea of being pleasant, but do not have the time or the desire to go too in-depth with our personal stories.

When we spend the majority of our lives in one place, cultural norms become deeply rooted in our thoughts and behaviors.  It’s challenging to try to “un-do”, even if only temporarily, what seems completely natural.  Doing some practice interviewing with a friend or advisor that can give you honest feedback is the best way to identify some of these issues so you can be a better and more confident interview candidate.


Kelly is a career advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she assists undergraduate business students with all aspects of their career development. Connect with Kelly on Twitter, LinkedIn orBrazenCareerist.

Related posts:

  1. Tips for International Students Interviewing for Jobs in the U.S.
  2. Interviewing the Second Time Around
  3. Job Search as an International Student

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